Which Ontario cities and towns should you put on your travel itinerary? Toronto, Ottawa & Niagara Falls have much to offer but so do the smaller cities and quaint little towns of Ontario.
Which places should you put on your travel agenda? With a province the size of Ontario, at first glance it might seem hard to choose.
Above: Toronto City Hall's space-age architecture
A lot will depend on your personal interests, but I'd recommend that if you're including several Ontario cities in your trip, you should at least consider starting with the Big Three: Toronto, Ottawa and Niagara Falls. After that, pick the centres that match your personal needs (more on this below).
Why Toronto? In terms of population, Toronto is the largest city in the province, with about 2.5 million people in the city itself, and about five million in the Greater Toronto Area (which means the city and its satellite communities). It offers all of the big city attractions, such as entertainment, museums, shopping, fine dining, professional sports, and unique tourist attractions like the CN Tower, the Toronto Zoo, etc.
Why Ottawa? It's the Canadian capital and as such is a treasure-house of cultural properties like the National Gallery of Canada, the National Arts Centre (for performing arts), and of course the Parliament Buildings with their popular Mounties and the Changing of the Guards Ceremony. With a population of 812,000, it's a green, walkable place: a pleasant surprise for a capital city.
Why Niagara Falls? Niagara Falls is one of the great natural wonders of the world and it attracts about 12 million visitors a year. Although the City of Niagara Falls (Canada) is small (population approximately 82,000), the surrounding Niagara Region is densely populated and its cities and towns are rich in history, art and entertainment.
Great Day Trip Destinations!
And just what are those "other urban areas"? How do you choose which Ontario cities are best for you?
Start by thinking of your interests. For example, if you like theatre, try a couple of days in Niagara-on-the-Lake or Stratford. If you like exploring heritage and museums, visit Hamilton in the Golden Horseshoe region. Are you a connoisseur of craft and art? Book a night or two in Picton in Prince Edward County. Looking for that small-town feel? Plan a day-trip to Elora. Or how about a small city with a vacation-resort feel to it, situated on a waterfront? Then you might want to check out Orillia.
Here are few fun Ontario cities to get you started.
A to Z
Amherstburg – Situated on the Detroit River, Amherstburg is a short drive from Windsor or Detroit. Heritage-lovers will enjoy exploring the Fort Malden National Historic Site. The town also boasts a North American Black Historical Museum and Cultural Centre and has strong ties to the Underground Railway.
Aurora - This small town near Toronto retains some of its 19th century-charm, including two small but fascinating museums: Hillary House (former doctor's house/office and small medical museum) and the Aurora Cultural Centre which has a one-room heritage display.
Barrie - Just north of Toronto this city boasts Horseshoe Resort and Snow Valley, two major ski centers. Visitors also enjoy one of Canada's largest antique malls.
Bracebridge - Home of Santa's Village, Bracebridge is also a cute little cottage country town and capital of the Muskoka region.
Brantford - Locals call it the Telephone Town because of its association with Alexander Graham Bell. You can visit the Bell Homestead National Historic Site. Other great attractions include the Woodland Cultural Centre (for Aboriginal art and history), Her Majesty's Royal Chapel of the Mohawks, and the Glenhyrst Art Gallery. Nearby, on Six Nations territory you'll find Chiefswood National Historic Site.
Burlington - Between Toronto and Hamilton. This growing city has a lovely waterfront, fun music festivals, a nice little art gallery and a great museum called Ireland House.
Chatham – The town is steeped in Underground Railway history, with two museums devoted to telling the tale, Buxton National Historic Site and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Cobourg – Cobourg is an historic port town on Lake Ontario. Since the late 1980s town officials have focussed on sprucing up its heritage buildings, building a boardwalk from the harbour to the beach, hosting waterfront and music festivals and promoting itself to tourists as a romantic getaway and “feel good” destination just an hour east of Toronto. Artists and artisans have settled in the area and shoppers enjoy their unique offerings in Cobourg’s downtown boutiques.
Collingwood - Say Collingwood and most people think skiing and Blue Mountain Resort which is about 10 km out of town. But the area has summer time attractions too like caving and beaches and zip-lining and golfing and even an annual Elvis Festival.
Dundas - This historic valley town is no longer a secret. Word is getting out about its gourmet delights, heritage treasures and artsy attractions.
Elmira – The German roots of this area’s Old Order Mennonites are visible in the countryside surrounding Elmira, and sometimes in the town as well when the farming families come in to town to buy & sell. Elmira’s Maple Syrup Festival is the largest and busiest one in the province. Another local attraction is Kissing Bridge, the last covered bridge in Ontario, which you’ll find in West Montrose, just 6 km from Elmira.
Elora - Elora has long been popular with daytrippers looking for fine arts and crafts, antiques and the beautiful Elora Gorge.
Fergus – If you’ve been to Scotland, Fergus’ architecture will look familiar. The Scottish roots are also on display at the Fergus Scottish Festival and Highland Games, held annually. My favourite place to visit is the Wellington County Museum, a former poorhouse converted to one of the most unusual and fascinating historic centres in the province.
Fort Erie – The town of Fort Erie in the Niagara Region is home to the Old Fort Erie, the reconstructed British fort, where you can get a feel for life and death during the War of 1812.
Gananoque – This port city along the St Lawrence River is a great place to catch a cruise of the Thousand Islands.
Glen Williams - This little village is a delightful discovery. Here you'll find an old mill hosting artists workshops and an antique mall.
Grand Bend – This town is a popular resort village on Lake Huron. The Pinery Provincial Park is one of the local attractions for nature-lovers.
Georgina - On Simcoe Lake, this resort town offers recreation for nature lovers, sportsmen, and connoisseurs of art and heritage.
Gravenhurst - One of the key towns in the famous Muskoka cottage country, Gravenhurst attracts tour boat fans who want to take a cruise on a lovely antique steam boat.
Grimsby - A small town with a unique neighbourhood: Grimsby Beach.
Guelph – Everyone in Canada knows the poem “In Flanders Fields”. Did you know it was written by John McCrae and that you can visit his former home, McCrae House, in Guelph? While you’re here you might want to take in the Guelph Civic Museum (housed in part in a former convent), enjoy some art at the MacDonald Stewart Art Centre, stroll among the trees at the University of Guelph Arboretum, attend lively music festivals, or stop in to the local “donkey sanctuary”! Now how is that last one for unique?
Haliburton – This is the central town for the Haliburton Highlands, a region of lakes and hills named in part for its resemblance to the Scottish Highlands and also for the Scottish heritage of some of its early settlers. The town of Haliburton has a lively arts culture, with some wonderful galleries and an annual studio tour. When we came for the tour one fall, we stayed at the Bonnieview Inn, a local resort on the shores of Lake Kashagawigamog (now that’s a mouthful). The natural beauty of the area attracts artists, both professional and amateur. Time to take that painting vacation you’ve always wanted, perhaps?
Hamilton - Discover Hamilton's many waterfalls, the Royal Botanical Gardens, festivals and cool museums.
Jordan Ontario - Big things come in small packages! This tiny town has much to offer in terms of art, history, wine and dining.
Kingston - One of Canada's most historic towns, this lakeside city has some great scenery, an amazing old fort, and a lively cultural life.
Kitchener – Home of Oktoberfest and full of great heritage sites.
Kleinburg - Need a quick escape from the
city? Don't want to drive too far? Home
to the McMichael art gallery, Kleinburg is a posh and cute town with antique shops, art
galleries and heritage B and Bs, just north of Toronto.
London – Historic London has several great museums. Find out about Museum London, Museum of Ontario Archeology, the home of the man who discovered insulin, etc.
Midland - Midland is the tourist mecca of southern Georgian Bay. Take a cruise around the 30,000 Islands on Miss Midland, visit the Huronia Museum and Little Lake Park, admire the town's many murals, and step back in time to the 1600s at Saint Marie Among the Hurons.Mississauga - The fourth largest city in Ontario offers live theatre, a symphony orchestra, historic museums like Benares House, and Port Credit (her own waterfront community).
Niagara on the Lake
- Often called Ontario's prettiest town. A lovely daytrip from Niagara
Falls. History, shopping and of course the Shaw Festival Theatre.
- Lakeside town with live theatre, shopping and a wonderful old house
museum built by one of Canada's most famous and funniest writers.
Oshawa - Oshawa's an auto makers town, and the city's murals reflect that history. Car lovers will also want to visit the Canadian Automotive Museum. Other cultural attractions include the Robert McLauglin Gallery and the historic Parkwood Estate (my favourite "stately historic home" in the province) with its stunning art deco gardens.
Owen Sound -
Located on the shores of Georgian Bay. Owen Sound is
a great place for
outdoor recreation. The town has a lively cultural life as well, with
history museums such as the Billy Bishop Home and the Marine and Rail
Museum and an art gallery devoted to famous Canadian artist Tom Thomson.
A local artists' co-op offers art and crafts too tempting to resist.
- The "other" Paris is a small town with unique architecture and a huge
sewing/craft shop that attracts shoppers from all over southern
Parry Sound – Seeking adventure and scenery? Try a small
seaplane tour with Georgian Bay Airways, which is based in Parry Sound. Or if
you prefer to cruise, board the Island Queen
for a trip around the 30,000
Islands on Georgian Bay, up in cottage country. It's also famous for the
Festival of the Sound, an annual summer festival of classical music.
Peterborough and the Kawarthas - Attractions include the Trent-Severen Waterway and Peterborough Lock Lift, Peterborough Museum, The Art Gallery of Peterborough, the Canadian Canoe Museum, Riverview Park and Zoo, and the Lang Pioneer Village.
Picton Ontario - The small, tourist-friendly town is a great base of operations to explore wineries, art studios and more in rural Prince Edward County in eastern Ontario.
Port Colborne Ontario - This tiny port city on Lake Erie has some great heritage attractions and a lovely tea room run by the local museum.
Port Credit - Festivals, a famous literary landmark, and cute boutiques make the town a perfect daytrip from Toronto.
Port Dalhousie – Now part of St Catharines, Port Dalhouse was once a small town. Some of the heritage buildings remain today and house shops and restaurants. The beach is famous for its vintage merry-go-round – still costing only a nickel a ride. For pictures and more info, see St Catharines.
Port Dover - Come for the perch, the beach... or Friday the 13th?
Port Hope – The town’s well-preserved heritage district is full of boutiques, antique shops, and a 1930s cinema converted to a live-performance theatre. Outdoor lovers will enjoy the waterfront, marina and beach as well as the numerous walking trails in the area.
Port Stanley – This Lake Erie port city draws tourists with their little theatre, their steam train ride, and three pretty beaches.
Queenston – The big attraction in this historic Niagara Region town is a park called Queenston Heights, which was once a key battle ground during the War of 1812. Brock’s Monument, honouring the British general who died here, stands in the park; if you’re fit you can climb the 235 steps to the lookout platform on top. The park is a great place for picnics and the on-site restaurant has two options – one casual, one fancy, both with spectacular views of the Niagara River. In town, visit the Mackenzie Printery and the sweet little Riverbrink Art Museum.
Region of Waterloo - The region which includes Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo serves up lots of great food, fun and history.
Sauble Beach – On the shores of Lake Huron, Sauble Beach is one of Ontario’s busiest summer destinations. The sandy shore is over 7 km long. Tourists will find plenty of family entertainment, shopping, restaurants and lodging nearby.
Sault Ste-Marie - For tourists, the
"Soo" as it's affectionately called, is best known as the starting point
for the Agawa Canyon Train Ride.
- Home of the Niagara Wine Festival. While you're here, stop in to the
art gallery, watch the foreign ships come in through the Welland Canal
Centre, and take a 5 cents ride on the carousel at old Port Dalhousie.
St. Jacob’s - It’s near Kitchener-Waterloo in the Region of Waterloo, and it’s known as the “Mennonite village”. You’ll find a lot of handmade crafts like Mennonite quilts, fine handmade furniture, and delicious food in the downtown shops and at the largest Farmers Market in Canada. Good live theatre too.
St. Thomas – If you’re a fan of railway history, then you probably already know that St Thomas was once a major hub of railway traffic for North America. Make sure you visit the quirky old Elgin County Railway Museum, and after that, the Canadian Southern Railway Station, which has been lovingly converted. It’s a true delight for architecture fans.
Stoney Creek – Although it’s now part of the amalgamated Greater Hamilton, Stoney Creek retains its own unique identity. The biggest attraction in this lakeside town is Battlefield Park with its museum and annual battle re-enactment – a spectacular event.
- Home of the Stratford Shakespeare Theatre, the downtown will keep you
busy shopping for Aboriginal art, Irish sweaters, gourmet chocolates
Sudbury – Dynamic Earth, Science North, art galleries, live theatre and historic museums make this northern city a tourist destination.
Thunder Bay - One of the most northern Ontario cities, Thunder Bay is especially popular with outdoor adventure lovers. For culture vultures, The Thunder Bay Art Gallery features one of the most important collections of Aboriginal art in the province.
– Visit the Annandale National Historic Site,
a beautiful home that is now a museum. Are you a rail fan? In a fine
adaptive reuse, the old train station now hosts a fine arts/craft
gallery. Country lovers will adore the Agricultural Art Museum.
- At the tip of the Bruce Penninsula, Tobermory is headquarters for
exploring two great national parks, the Fathom Five marine park and the
Bruce Penninsula National Park. It's also the spot where you can catch
the ferry over to scenic Manitoulin Island.
Beach - Yes, it's a famous beach but it's a town too. Discover one of
the busiest tourist areas in the Georgian Bay region.
Windsor – The "deep south" of Canada (lol). Attractions include the Art Gallery of Windsor, live theatre and concerts, the sculpture park along the river, the casino, and the Rumrunners Tour. A short drive through the tunnel under the Detroit River and you're in Detroit. From here, you're also not far from other points of interest in the Windsor-Essex region such as Uncle Tom's Cabin, Fort Malden, and of course the world famous birding sanctuary Point Pelee National Park.
Woodstock - A pretty little town with a great museum, art gallery and a wonderful old main street. Visit its famous street of mansions.
Waterloo – see "Region of Waterloo"
For other great places in Canada to visit, see Travel to Canada.